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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Tugging on the robe

Recent history has seen a number of interesting discussions on the question of the possibility of Catholic-Jewish theological dialogue. I never saw this as a problem myself, given that as long as Catholics and Jews speak the same language (say, for example, English), they are able to dialogue -- just keep it friendly, of course! Chakira, however, posted a link to an interesting article called Confrontation, originally published in an Orthodox Jewish journal in 1964. This article proposes that *theological* dialogue between the two faiths is, in fact, impossible. We can learn about each other, and agree to disagree, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder against secularism, but that's about it.

Of course, this article was written 40 years ago, so you might think that it is a bit dated, but according to Chakira (and the header to the article) this article and its ideas remain important and influential in the Jewish community. It was even "officialized," you might say, by this statement from the Rabbinical Council of America (adopted February 1964):

We are pleased to note that in recent years there has evolved in our country as well as throughout the world a desire to seek better understanding and a mutual respect among the world's major faiths. The current threat of secularism and materialism and the modern atheistic negation of religion and religious values makes even more imperative a harmonious relationship among the faiths. This relationship, however, can only be of value if it will not be in conflict with the uniqueness of each religious community, since each religious community is an individual entity which cannot be merged or equated with a community which is committed to a different faith. Each religious community is endowed with intrinsic dignity and metaphysical worth. Its historical experience, its present dynamics, its hopes and aspirations for the future can only be interpreted in terms of full spiritual independence of and freedom from any relatedness to another faith community. Any suggestion that the historical and meta-historical worth of a faith community be viewed against the backdrop of another faith, and the mere hint that a revision of basic historic attitudes is anticipated, are incongruous with the fundamentals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and can only breed discord and suspicion. Such an approach is unacceptable to any self-respecting faith community that is proud of its past, vibrant and active in the present and determined to live on in the future and to continue serving God in its own individual way. Only full appreciation on the part of all of the singular role, inherent worth and basic prerogatives of each religious community will help promote the spirit of cooperation among faiths.

It is the prayerful hope of the Rabbinical Council of America that all inter-religious discussion and activity will be confined to these dimensions and will be guided by the prophet, Micah (4:5) "Let all the people walk, each one in the name of his god, and we shall walk in the name of our Lord, our God, forever and ever."

Note the last line. It proposes that each people basically stick to its own religion, and leave it at that. But is this really realistic?

Problem #1: The Jewish scriptures make it pretty clear that, even from within Judaism, not all religions are created equal (no matter what the passage of Micah seems to say). Frequently, for example, we find statements mocking idolatry as a useless practice. Is Micah really suggesting that it is ok for people to follow "their own gods," when throughout the scriptures it is made clear that there is only One God? It sounds more like Micah is suggesting once again that the Chosen People forget about those other gods, and remember to follow the Lord. That's the real emphasis here.

Problem #2: Christians believe in the same God as the Jews. So the passage of Micah does not apply in this case. There are some Jews who might argue that the Trinitarian view of God that Christians hold "modifies God" to such an extent that he is no longer the same God as the God of Israel....but once you make that argument, you are making a judgment about the religion of the "Other", something that the article says no one should be allowed to do! Catch 22, folks.

Problem #3: Even if we admit that Christians believe in the same God as the Jews, some might argue that each faith should simply worship God in their own way and leave each other alone. But even that won't work. I can understand the rejection by Jews of a theological dialogue that has the ulterior motive of "convincing the Jews that they are wrong". But it is important that we also remember the words of the prophet Zechariah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" (Zechariah 8:23)

I submit to you that this is exactly what sincere Christians are doing when they seek to engage in theological dialogue with Jews. But what will the answer be? The logic of the article essentially proposes "Nope, sorry, you stick to your false gods and we'll stick to the worship of the One True God, and while you're at it please stop tugging at my robe." That can't be right.

Problem #4: There are people who, in their very lived experience, do not see a contradiction inherent in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, because they consider themselves to be living both realities simultaneously. On the Evangelical side, you have the Jews for Jesus. On the Catholic side, there is the Association of Hebrew Catholics. While some might view these groups suspiciously as fronts for organized proselytism of Jews, from what I have seen they contain genuine sincere believers who see no contradiction in being Jewish and Christian. In fact, ideas like what are contained in Confrontation cause them genuine pain, because (once again) there is a suggestion that such groups are metaphysically inferior. Taking the logic of that article to its furthest end, Gentile Christians are being called upon to look at these groups as suspiciously as their Jewish counterparts, and effectively to abandon them....something we just can't do.

So where do we go from here? It would seem that the only way forward is in genuine theological dialogue. But that is something the article proposes cannot be done, so a blockage is created, and we are trapped in a vicious circle. Any ideas how to get out of it?

What makes a mortal sin?

What makes a mortal sin?

"Bless me Father for I have sinned," the person began, "I've committed a mortal sin."

I've heard this phrase several times when hearing confessions, and it always grabs my attention. Mortal sin is something notoriously difficult to determine in specific cases, even for ourselves. There have even been times when a person has come to me, for example, absolutely convinced that they committed a mortal sin, but I have serious doubts that it is the case.

Why is it so hard to determine the existence of mortal sin? Because mortal sin has two components:

  1. A subjective element, in that for a sin to be mortal it requires:
    1. full knowledge that the sin is a sin, including its gravity; and
    2. full consent to the sin itself.
  2. An objective element, in that the sin itself must be gravely sinful....the little stuff usually just isn't heavy enough to keep us out of heaven.

Anything that falls short of these criteria is not a mortal sin, but a venial sin, and therefore is not enough to keep us out of heaven. And because it is so hard to read the subjective element (how can we ever declare we know what is going on in the heart of another? how can we even know with certainty what is going on in our own heart?), it is very hard to declare, with 100% certainty, which actual sins are mortal and which aren't.

It is possible to abuse this element of moral teaching, by going so far as to say that *no* sin is ever mortal. The argument is that humans are not psychologically equipped to ever really have full knowledge and/or full consent. Some theologians have tried to explain this by proposing that it isn't the actual sins that count as some sort of transcendental "fundamental option" for or against God, but John Paul II has reminded the Church (through his encyclical Veritatis Splendor) that the way we, in fact, change our fundamental option is in reference to actual sins.

For myself, I am not so sure that "gravely" sinful acts are in fact mortal sins all that often. For those who do wind up in Hell upon their death, I have an intuition that many of them are there not because of the actual sin, but because of their refusal to repent from it. Like I said in a previous post, we can't change our past, but we can alter how that past is incorporated in our present. This is the essence of repentance, and the refusal to repent is itself a moral choice — and possibly a mortal one, because ultimately it involves that first of all sins, PRIDE. My argument, in essence, is that it is possible to mortally sin in refusing repentance from a sin that is otherwise objectively venial.

This, in fact, is part of why it is important to preach the Gospel. Some people have asked me, "If mortal sin requires full knowledge, isn't it counter-productive to preach the Gospel? After all, by giving people full knowledge, aren't you opening a door to mortal sin for them, a door otherwise closed?" Well, maybe. But sin has an alienating effect....from others, from God, even from ourselves. And we want, deep down, to overcome that alienation. Vatican II taught the following:

Often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature", the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (Lumen Gentium, no. 16)

"Final despair" is, in a sense, the ultimate mortal sin. And if final despair can be attained without the Gospel, then the Gospel is necessary to rescue people from it. And that is why it must be preached, for the fundamental message of the Gospel — the very first thing Jesus ever preached — was "Repent! And believe the Gospel."

Health vs. Healing

Classic "health" ministry is like the pastoral care provided in hospitals. The doctors take care of tending to the body, while the pastoral care people take care of tending to the soul. We listen, we journey with people as they suffer. We let them know they are not alone, and that God has not abandoned them either. We help them find meaning, if possible, in their suffering. These are all good things.

A "healing" ministry, though, is different. It is about using pastoral care to tend to the body as well. It is predicated on the belief that it is possible for God's power to intervene, and on a fairly regular basis, to effect physical healings. Our first duty is to pray, and to pray with boldness, and to pray as a community.

I see the difference between the two in the attitude each approach takes to so-called "miraculous" cures. From the "health" perspective, Jesus and the apostles really did do these things, but they are now very exceptional and now the ordinary way God works is through us, and the care we can provide. The focus (again, I like this emphasis) is to remember to communicate God's love at the same time as we ministry to people's bodies and minds.

On the other hand, the "healing" perspective sees no reason why the source of those healings accomplished in ancient times need to have dried up. There is nothing wrong with seeking medical care, but first and foremost we need to place our illness at Jesus' feet and ask him to continue the work he so often did when he walked the Earth.

The "healing" people think the "health" perspective lacks faith. The "health" people think the "healing" perspective can build false hopes, which then get dashed and people are hurt even more. And granted, sometimes the "healing" ministry is done by people who are borderline personalities. But then again, the "health" people sometimes suffer from the arrogance that medicine can treat anything, and when it can't they have nothing else to offer except to call the priest for the last anointing.

Can the two sides meet? I think so. Each side opposes the other, I think, because of differing visions of suffering. But what is their vision of health? I think that is where common ground can be found....in the development of a theology of health. Not of health care, but of health itself. What does it mean to "be healthy"?

Confession and non-Catholics

I once had a Protestant woman become quite upset when she was told by a Catholic priest that, while he would be very happy to hear her sins and to pray with her, he could not offer her absolution. A number of her Catholic friends, while less upset, did wonder why this was so. As it turns out, there are nuances to the question that need to be addressed.

Preliminary point #1: There are times when a priest can't offer absolution to Catholics!

In order for a sacramental confession to be valid, a person has to come offering both contrition and conversion.

Contrition is a looking back at the sins and being sorry for them — if a person is not sorry, it isn't really a confession. Usually people coming to confession are contrite — after all, they are there — but sometimes we encounter situations where contrition is absent, such as with a person who is "forced" to go to confession by their parents, even though they don't feel sorry at all. It just isn't a real confession, so we can't offer the absolution.

Conversion, on the other hand, is a looking forward — it means that they promise to amend their life, such that they would not do it over again even if the exact same circumstances were present. Often enough we are presented with situations where contrition exists, but the person (while terribly sorry) states that they'd do it again if they "had" to. This is problematic as it shows a lack of faith, but more importantly it shows a lack of a willingness to "pick up your cross" and follow Jesus. Most often, though, the lack of conversion comes when a person refuses to change some objective element of their life that is contrary to Christian discipleship. For example, for a person who is in an irregular marriage (whether formal or "common-law") one of the elements of their conversion is to bring that marriage into line with Jesus' teaching on marriage. Until that is done, absolution can't be given. Obviously this is sometimes met with tremendous anger, usually stemming from past hurts, and a priest has to be very careful how the situation is addressed so as to respect pastoral charity, but it can't be done at the expense of truth.

It is important to also note that certain canonical penalties prevent a priest from offering absolution at that moment. A person who has been excommunicated has to have that excommunication lifted before sacramental absolution can be given. Sometimes that can be done by the priest himself — I, for example, have the faculty to lift excommunications for people who have performed or had abortions. And any priest can absolve any penalty when the person is in danger of death. But generally, when a person is under a canonical penalty, it needs to be removed first by some prior steps — contact with the diocesan bishop, for example. In such a case a priest would help the person through this process, and then joyfully be able to give the sacramental absolution at the end.

Preliminary point #2: The person has to be validly baptized

The expression "non-Catholics" is a bit broad, as it includes both non-Christians and non-Catholic Christians. The sacrament of Reconciliation pre-supposes the sacrament of Baptism, which is really the sacrament par-excellence for the forgiveness of sins...to the point that in the early Church the sacrament of Reconciliation was called the "second baptism", because all it does is renew the baptismal grace.

This does not mean that the Church does not offer forgiveness to non-baptized persons! It's just that the means of offering that forgiveness is different — it is through offering Baptism, not sacramental absolution. And I would always be willing to sit and talk with someone, baptized or not, who had something weighing on their conscience, and to pray with them. Again, it is a question of pastoral charity.

Preliminary point #3: The "objective element" of the sacrament

We need to recognize that confession is a sacrament, and as such it is a bit special when compared to many other prayers of the Church (such as blessings). Every sacrament has an outward sign (such as the words of absolution) and an inward grace (the healing of one's relationship with God). But every sacrament also has an intermediate element between these two things that we call the res et sacramentum. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, for example, the outward sign is the words of the Eucharistic Prayer, the inward grace is the grace received in Holy Communion, and the objective element between them is....the Body and Blood of Christ itself, sitting on the altar after the consecration and before the reception of communion. It is "objectively" there, and remains so even if not all the Eucharist is consumed (that's why we have locked tabernacles in church).

Each sacrament has it's own "objective element". For the Eucharist this is easy to figure out — it's right before our eyes — but what is it for Reconciliation? It is the healing of our relationship with the Church. The outward sign is our confession + absolution, which reconciles us with the Church, which then reconciles us to God in a manner par excellence, because the Church is also identified with the Body of Christ. This is one of the reasons why priests are ministers of the sacrament of Reconciliation. It's not because we're nice guys and good listeners — I wish we always were! — but because through our ordination we are able to represent the Church to the penitent because we have been configured to Christ, the Head of the Church, and we act in his name.

Often enough I hear the story "I don't need to confess my sins to a priest because I can confess them to God directly". Well of course you can express sorrow to God directly, and I hope people do in fact do this — and do it often. But the problem is this: when we sin, it's not only God we offend. First of all, there is the person whom we have directly sinned against — in general we have to say we're sorry to them, too. But beyond this, whenever we sin we also sin against all Christians, because in our sin we discredit the good name of the gospel. I've experienced this personally with the clergy abuse crisis in the U.S. While only a small minority of priests are guilty of these crimes, all priests fall under a cloud of suspicion because of it. Those abusers have not only hurt their victims, they have hurt their fellow priests — the hard-working (and, might I add, innocent) ones — in the process. In fact, they have hurt all Catholics, by hurting (in the process) the credibility of the Catholic Church as a carrier of the Gospel. How many ordinary Catholics found it just a little bit harder to profess their faith to their neighbours as a result of all of this? More than a few, I imagine.

This being said, I am not waiting for an apology from all those priests. This is not because I don't think they want to offer one, but because I recognize that it would be impractical to require them to personally apologize to all Catholic priests — much less to all Catholics. But this doesn't bother me, because I believe in the power of the sacrament of Reconciliation. In it Christ, the Head of the Church, speaks on behalf of the members to reconcile the sinful members once again to his Body. In going to confession, a person is not just "speaking to God" or "speaking to God through the priest", but is speaking to the whole of the Church — those alive today, and even those who have gone on ahead of us in purgatory or heaven. And the priest, acting in persona Christi capitis, reconciles that person to the Church as well as to the Lord. This is something that "confessing to God directly" cannot accomplish. It is a genuine "objective element" for the sacrament of Reconciliation.

So why can't the priest offer absolution to non-Catholic Christians?

By now the answer to this question should be obvious. A non-Catholic Christian, by definition, is not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The sacrament of Reconciliation is about restoring a person to communion to God through restoring them to the full communion of the Church. You can't restore a person to the full communion of the Church if, by their membership elsewhere, they are indicating that they don't want to live in full communion. Ergo, you can't offer them absolution. If they want sacramental absolution, they should also by definition want to be Catholic. If they don't, then sacramental absolution isn't for them — it just wouldn't make sense.

To be honest, some of our recent catechesis on the sacrament of Reconciliation hasn't helped us any in this understanding. In recent years we've tried to get away from a "judicial" view of the sacrament and present a more pastoral view, which unfortunately sometimes winds up looking like a merely therapeutic encounter. "Why should I confess my sins to a priest and not to God directly?" is often met with the answer "Because it's good to actually vocalize your sins to another human being, and the priest is bound by a special obligation of secrecy." This is true as far as it goes, and I've used the answer myself, but it *is* incomplete. Because I've known Protestants who've heard this answer and said to themselves "Hey, that's a good point, I'll go to the Catholic priest myself", and they come away quite confused (or even hurt). This can create confusion even in the minds of our Catholics, so we need to be a bit more complete in our explanations.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. Although non-Catholic Christians are not in full communion with the Catholic Church (otherwise, they'd be Catholics), thanks to the fact that they are baptized they are not totally out of communion either. This allows us to offer sacramental absolution in certain limited circumstances.

Members of the Eastern Orthodox churches share the same sacramental life as the Catholic Church, and their faith is almost identical in the core elements. Because we are so closely related, the rules for offering them absolution are as follows:

Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick to members of the eastern Churches not in full communion with the catholic Church, if they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed. The same applies to members of other Churches which the Apostolic See judges to be in the same position as the aforesaid eastern Churches so far as the sacraments are concerned. (Code of Canon Law, canon 844.3)

Regarding the members of the Protestant churches, the rules are a bit more stringent:

If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgment of the diocesan Bishop or of the Episcopal Conference, there is some other grave and pressing need, catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed. (Code of Canon Law, canon 844.4)

In other words, unless the diocesan Bishop and/or Episcopal Conference has specifically outlined certain circumstances in which absolution can be given, the only time a Catholic priest can offer absolution on his own initiative is when the penitent is in danger of death AND the other requirements mentioned in 844.4 are also in place.

What about Catholics receiving absolution in another church? This is also quite restricted, even more so than for non-Catholics to receive absolution in the Catholic Church. But this is quite normal, if you think about it. After all, what jurisdiction could a non-Catholic minister possibly have to reconcile a person to the Catholic Church? I can see the argument if all the minister did was reconcile the person to God, but their function is also to reconcile them to the Catholic Church...how could they possibly do that, when they aren't a minister of that Church, or (in many cases) their ordination as priests isn't even recognized as valid? So the response Canon Law gives is the follows:

Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ's faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a catholic minister, may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. (Code of Canon Law, canon 844.2)

In other words, we can (in certain limited circumstances) receive these sacraments from Orthodox — but they generally won't offer them anyway — and we absolutely cannot receive them from Protestants, including Anglicans/Episcopalians. The irony is, to do so would be a sin!